Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Back when I was managing environmental cleanups for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, I had maybe a hundred people working for me. They included chemists, statisticians, samplers, and people who were good at getting things done.

Like many organizations, the Laboratory had its dysfunctionalities. I won’t go into them all; there was unhealthy competition among managers and some mistaken ways of thinking. It seemed to me that one of the mistakes was a poor model for management itself: the boss says, then the workers carry out the program.

The Laboratory, by its very nature, has many highly intelligent employees, quite capable of solving problems on their own, so such a model hardly makes sense. I realized that there was no way I could possibly have all the good ideas, nor did I want to shut out good ideas from others. Plus the infighting at higher management levels was something that the workers needed to be protected from if we were actually to clean up the sites we were assigned. I had seen damage wrought and opportunities missed from that infighting.

I had this odd idea that my teams were actually supposed to clean up some old septic tanks, outflow channels from metal-plating baths, dump sites, and other messes that the Laboratory had accumulated over the years. And the people working for me were energized by and enthusiastic about that idea.

So I said to them okay, you tell me how we’re going to deal with these messes. I was specific: this outflow channel, that dump site. But there was also an ongoing discussion as to how to prioritize, which sites to work on first, how to write contracts. We did a couple of small ones, the septic tanks and outflow channels, before we took on three acres of who-knows-what. Nice to have some successes under your belt before you try the hard stuff. You learn which things work and which don’t, and you build your confidence.

It was a messy process that required steely nerves on my part. Sometimes people would go away and I wouldn’t hear from them until they came back with a really good and rather complete plan. Other times they just couldn’t seem to get it, and I’d have to toss in a few suggestions from time to time. And there were a few who were poor workers; I dropped some, and others turned around. The messiest time, two of my teams almost (literally) came to blows. A meeting that started out tense ended up with each side understanding the other’s requirements and limitations, and they worked well together after that.

We cleaned up those three acres for $1.5 million and on schedule. The program office had projected $7.5 million just to dispose of the waste: that didn’t include front-end loaders or personnel. Yes, we could!

Fast forward to January 2009, Washington.

You’re a new president. The economy is in the tank. Two difficult wars are in progress. America has lost its standing in the world because of its repudiation of its own constitution. Congress has been dysfunctional for some time. Public discourse has reached a new low. You can’t do it by yourself.

I think I am seeing elements of my management strategy in Barack Obama’s approach. Every day brings a few more data points that fit. It’s a long-term strategy, though, so I wouldn’t expect to see big-time changes or results right away. It’s only eight months, and what Obama has to deal with is a lot more complex than safely removing three acres of unknown wastes.

Let me take two examples: health care reform and the place of nuclear weapons in the nation’s defense.

Health care reform is embedded in a bigger problem: how to get Congress working again. This cannot be done by exhortation. Congress has to learn how to get itself working. So Obama delegated the development and passage of the health care reform bill to Congress.

It’s been messy; famously, legislation is like sausage-making, and getting back to business is messy, so we’ve seen messy squared. Max Baucus’s attempts at bipartisanship, the August Town Halls, all that. But we’re starting to see things work: Baucus seems to be getting serious about a bill that can be passed. The business about bipartisanship is going away, largely because the Republicans can’t be bothered.

But they’ve been given their chance. And that’s an intriguing thing about this sort of management. Obama provides a broad outline of what he expects up front, but not the detailed bill. That gives supporters a chance to develop their own ideas and test them with their colleagues and the public. It also provides the opposition little purchase from which to attack. In fact, the opposition has two options: provide their own alternative or just say no. Providing an alternative opens them to attack. The Republicans have chosen to say no. Neither is attractive, and thus the opposition is weakened from the start.

The weaknesses of the draft bills are being debated, both in Congress and more broadly, and they are being fixed. Compromises are being struck. The legislative process is beginning to work again. People are coming to the realization that the legislation doesn’t have to be perfect, just good enough to build on.

The nuclear issue is much longer-term. Obama laid out his thinking in his Prague speech on April 5, nicely timed to precede the Carnegie Nonproliferation Conference. And the location allowed him to remind people that impossible things happen: a black President, the end of the Soviet Union. He has ordered a nuclear posture review.

Again, there was the expectation of boss knows best. Just as he was criticized for allowing a dysfunctional Congress to write the health reform legislation, there was a flurry of concern that the generals and other defense interests would write a nuclear posture review with goodies for their interests: no reductions in numbers, Reliable Replacement Warhead, missiles galore, Star Wars, you name it. As apparently they did. And Obama has told them to go back to the drawing board. Sometimes they just don’t seem to get it, and the boss has to toss in a few suggestions.

Obama is reiterating that “back to the drawing board” in public, too, just in case anyone didn’t get it. And he’s started negotiations toward his goals in START talks with the Russians, the Committee on Disarmament, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization. There will be more discussion, and it will be messy. And we will hear from Obama, not laying down the law, but nudging people in the right direction.

Daniel Levy considers Obama’s strategy in the Middle East and finds progress and direction, despite the nay-sayers who would, once again, insist that the boss pronounce a strategy and everyone else fall into line. Marc Lynch concurs.

The projects I ran this way were extremely successful in meeting their goals. Not only that, everyone involved got a lot of satisfaction from them, and we had a lot of fun. The problems were with the managers above me. They didn’t understand what I was doing or why it was successful, so they felt they had to mess with the projects and destroyed them.

Obama won’t have those management problems. But there are others. There is a widespread incomprehension of this management style. I have seen very little commentary that deviates from the boss-knows-best assumption. So he is criticized for being indecisive or losing control of the narrative.

But we’re a democracy. We need a productive Congress and a citizenry who can debate what is best for the country. The Decider and his model of the Presidency didn’t allow for that, and previous presidents neglected it. It’s about time we got back to it.

1 comment:

MT said...

And you say this is different from flip-flopping? What a mind-bender.